I stood on a large rock and watched a Mexican man cross the Rio Grande River in southwest Texas. This was not an official crossing, and no one was around except for people like myself and my husband, hikers hiking along a desolate trail near the U.S.-Mexico border.
At first I saw the man sitting with a friend in a couple of lawn chairs on the other side of the river. They were chatting under some gnarled Texas cottonwood.
The Rio Grande is so narrow at this juncture, maybe sixty feet wide, I could hear their voices, their laughter.
Next to their campsite, a corral fenced three horses nickering and munching on hay. Soon, one of the men raised himself up out of his lawn chair, pulled a cap down over his head, and climbed on the back of a sorrel-colored horse.
Where was he going? Watching from the opposite bank of the river, in another country, felt like I was peering out a window at a cultural drama.
The Mexican trotted his horse for a while along a sandy embankment that was sloughing away. Then he leisurely crossed where a large gravel bar spanned much of the river. As soon as he was on the American side, he disappeared in the trees and brush. Probably hiding, I thought. But no. The man soon emerged, his horse still sauntering.
“I’d like to meet him and say hello,” my husband said, as if we were emissaries sent from earth to greet the aliens.
“What if he’s a drug runner? The drug cartels operate near here. Remember those women and children that were killed along the border? And what about that family that was attacked last week?”
Watching our Mexican man peacefully riding his horse, my comment seemed ludicrous. Around a bend in the trail we saw some trinkets and a plastic jug lined up on a pile of rocks. A little note said: “Thank you for your purchase. Your donation will help school children.” Whose school children? Likely this Mexican man’s. The trinkets—scorpions, tarantulas, and road runners made of meticulously twisted wire and beads—were labeled with prices. Most of them cost five dollars, but some were tagged seven.
I looked up and saw that the man on the horse had stopped at a similar cache of trinkets down the path. He slid off his horse, and picked up the plastic money jug, dumping what money was there, into his hands. He was a businessman checking his sales. Capitalism at its finest. Free enterprise, or unfree perhaps.
We walked on down the trail toward the Mexican. He looked up, and we waved and said, “Buenas dias!”
In broken English he told us his name was Benicio and asked us if we were interested in buying one of his trinkets. He picked up the scorpion with its beaded tail. As we looked over his merchandise, I asked him if he was worried about the border guards finding him.
“Los guardias fronterizos no son problema (the border police are not a problem),” he told us.
One of the items he had for sale was a walking stick covered with pictures of bright green cactus. Along one side of the stick was written a distinctive message from our neighbors to the south: “NO WALL.”
Driving on the way to our Texas hiking spot, we saw the border wall in El Paso. Through the metal mesh of the wall I saw a city bus pick up people in Juarez on the Mexican side. Buildings seemed smaller and older in Juarez, but more colorful. Adobe exteriors were painted aqua, yellow, and pink. A thought came to me then: if the wall was built to fence out Mexicans, why did I feel so fenced in? I wanted to cut through the wall mesh and walk past the dry arroyo, to an old mission church I saw in the distance.
All image credit: Diana Hooley